Crucial Conversations QA

When Your Skills Aren’t Working

Dear Crucial Skills,

The new skills I learned from your training have been priceless to me. I regularly come away from conversations feeling proud of my own conduct, but I’m getting mixed reactions from others. I’m finding that even when I’m at my best people resist having crucial conversations with me. Sometimes my efforts are met with apathy.

How do I handle those people who don’t seem to have an interest in improving working relationships? I keep watching your demonstration videos, but I’m just not getting the same reaction from my colleagues in my real-life crucial conversations. Please help!

Dancing Alone

Dear Dancing,

Wouldn’t life be wonderful if everyone responded the way they do in videos? If only they’d let us write their script for them! Darned humans.

I’m sorry you’re not yet getting the results you want from applying your crucial conversations skills. I’m impressed with your sincerity and trust that if you continue to “Work on Me First,” you’ll find options to help you gain greater influence in positive ways.

I always struggle to answer questions people ask me about why others don’t respond, because the “truth” is probably so specific to their situation and I have no visibility into what’s truly going on beyond the short description I get from them. The same is true in your case, so I’m going to offer you a shotgun answer—hoping some fragment of what I say might hit a target you care about.

I can think of four broad reasons someone might not respond positively to your attempt to hold a crucial conversation with him or her. I’d encourage you to reflect on each and examine whether one or more might be contributing to your challenges.

1. Lack of safety. You’ve already highlighted this one. The other person may either not believe you care about his or her interests or feel disrespected in some way. I won’t dwell much on this one because you seem to be exploring it pretty skillfully.

2. Lack of time. We sometimes differentiate between situational safety and relational safety. Situational safety means that in this conversation someone doesn’t feel safe with you. The solution to this is to use your safety building skills.

Relational safety means that, over a sustained period of time, the other person has concluded that you either don’t respect him or her or don’t care about his or her interests. This problem won’t yield to the simple application of a few skills in a single conversation, but it can begin there. It can begin with acknowledging how you may have hurt safety and with your unilateral commitment to change your behavior in the future. That crucial conversation will be a good start, but safety won’t be fully restored until you change your behavior. Over time, you’ll find that your colleagues feel safer with you and engage more trustingly in your crucial conversations.

3. Lack of hope. Sometimes people don’t engage because they don’t think it will change anything. Perhaps they’ve had experiences with you in the past where they felt like the loser in the conversation—and had no alternate experiences where they felt that it served their needs to invest in the conversation. Let’s face it; a crucial conversation takes effort, and who wants to make that kind of emotional investment if it doesn’t do them good? If you think your colleagues might be in this camp, the way out is the opposite of the way in. You’ll have to find ways of demonstrating your openness to their needs and views in smaller conversations. Over time, their hope will be restored that conversations with you can benefit them.

4. Lack of upside. Another possibility is that others feel fine about having some crucial conversations with you. They may even hope that talking about tough things with you is productive—on some topics. But this crucial conversation—the one you keep trying to tee up—holds no upside for them. In this case, you have a mutual purpose problem, and the crucial conversation you need to hold is one in which you help them see the significant benefits of engaging in dialogue with you.

5. Fatigue. There are some people with whom crucial conversations become a daily occurrence. It seems like there is always some tumultuous and emotionally draining issue that they need to address. If you fall into this category, people might see you as a high-maintenance relationship and begin to avoid you. They feel weary when they see you and just don’t want to work themselves up for the chore of dealing with yet another tough conversation.

If this is the case, then you’ve got two challenges. First, you’ll need to rebuild your relational safety by creating dozens of nourishing interactions—experiences others will feel are fun, light, enjoyable, or rewarding. If the work required in a relationship far exceeds the fun, people start to think of you as medicine instead of pleasure—they’ll take you when they have to, but not when they can avoid it. You’ll need to change their perception by changing the mix of interactions they have with you.

Second, you may want to read the Choose What and If chapter of Crucial Confrontations. This chapter gives a good treatment of when we should—and should not—hold an emotionally challenging conversation with others. You may have fallen into the habit of dealing with everything rather than letting some issues slide—and expanding what we call your zone of acceptability. A bit more tolerance and patience may help you become easier to talk with.

I hope these ideas are useful as you reflect on what you can do to create the results that are important to you. And, if all of these fail, please remember our bottom line statement about crucial conversations: the skills don’t guarantee everyone will behave the way you want. They just increase the likelihood that you’ll be heard. At some point, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’ve done my best. And I’m done!”

Best wishes,